Thursday, July 15, 2010

Grayhead Coneflower

Grayhead coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
Ratibida pinnata, a native coneflower, is making quite a show this year. I scattered seeds several years ago. Those seeds germinated, grew and produced abundant seed. The self seeded plants are now growing in the meadow, the savanna and the prairie. It is growing tallest in the prairie where it competes with big blue stem and Culver's root. This plant at the top of the photo is reaching upwards to 6 feet. The plants in the drier savanna area are only about 4 to 5 feet tall. The flower heads start off green then brown and finally mature turning gray and the bright yellow petals fall off. Seeds are eaten by some birds, the flowers are a source of nectar and pollen for many insects and the leaves are browsed by some mammals.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Black Swallowtail

Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
Is it my imagination, or that blogging makes me more attentive, or are there actually a lot more butterflies about this year? I'm thinking the latter. The cone flowers in the back have been loaded with multiple tiger swallowtails, monarchs, red admirals, and these guys, black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes), essentially non-stop, dawn to dusk. It wasn't until I examined the image that this was actually a black swallowtail and not a spicebush swallowtail, as I had originally thought when observing them. But the two are very similar. They both mimic the pipevine swallowtail, whose larvae store aristolochic acid from their host plants and pass it along to the adult stage, making them toxic or at least bad tasting to predators. The mimics don't share this toxicity, but trick predators into avoiding them by their close resemblance to the pipevine swallowtail. Click on the image below to view it at full resolution, a quite different and closeup view of these beautiful insects.
Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Culver's Root

Culver's root (Veronicastrum vriginicum)
Veronicastrum vriginicum is an interesting native plant, especially now that it is blooming at Habitat Home. The plant shoots straight up, produces lovely whorled leaves and then flower spikes in great abundance. The abundance helps attract many insects; bees, butterflies, wasps, and bumble bees seem especially fond of the flowers. The common name comes from Dr. Culver, a physician in the eighteenth century who popularized the use of the plant for digestive problems and constipation. The plant grows in partial shade but it is also found amongst the tall grasses in our mesic prairie.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Phoebe Family Feeding

By Friday, the phoebe nest (see Phoebe Nest Compendium post) was on the ground and there were no birds to be seen or heard. I wished them well. Then this morning, out the bedroom window (no, I wasn't climbing trees, at least that early) I saw a phoebe-size bird fly off the deck and out onto a nearby tree branch. Sure enough, also on the branch was one of the little guys. The adult made a couple more quick visits over a ten minute period, and the camera managed to catch one of the transfers of an insect to the hungry kid. Guess the adults aren't finished caring for the family yet, and we're glad to have the flying "mosquito collectors" still in residence. I may tend to anthropomorphize everything, but doesn't Mom look a little haggard here, at least compared to four weeks ago?
Easter phoebes (Sayornis phoebe)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Barn swallows

Habitat Home does not have a barn, but our neighbors do. We were over visiting our farm neighbors this morning and they showed us these wonderful nests that have been built in their barn. The barn swallows will return to the same nest site every year, repairing or rebuilding the nest. They eat mostly flies but they also eat beetles, bees and wasps. All taken on the wing. There were two other nests in the barn. The male and female were quite busy feeding this brood and did not seem to mind having visitors about.

Thanks Tom and Sue for sharing your barn and birds with us.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Phoebe Nest Compendium

For those of you who can remember (through the recent avalanche of flower and plant posts here) and may have been watching for a follow-up to the story on the pair of Eastern Phoebes who built a nest above my den window, I'll sneak a synopsis in here. The last post (Nesting Continues) showed that after a lengthy courtship, the phoebes finally got down to business at least three weeks after the nest was complete, and were rewarded by June 14 with four white eggs.  Almost two weeks later, on June 27, there were four hatchlings as seen here.
Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) hatchlings
Last week, on Thursday (July 1), after watching from the den window as both parents worked very hard at gathering insects for the chicks, I made an attempt to photograph the parents doing a feeding. This is made difficult by the location of the nest immediately under the deck where there isn't much light. So I strung up a shop light with a 100w incandescent bulb, and although this allowed me to actually see a feeding, the results were not too clear photographically. You can see her pushing that insect way down the gullet of the chick. It was not clear from the photos that day how many chicks had survived.
Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) hatchlings
After almost a week of procrastinating and getting involved in other projects, I realized it was now or never, so today I finally did the right thing, setting up my studio strobe light under the deck and running the sync cable down the hill to the camera.  This provided much more light and gave much better results.  Unfortunately, I could only see and photograph three young ones waiting for their mom or dad to show up with something to eat.  Apparently one of the chicks had not survived. But wow, they are big and continually move around in the nest, standing up on the edge, switching positions, etc.
Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)
I sat quite still, and finally the pair of adults returned and made several visits to the nest. I watched and took photos, but their repeated visits seemed to be very short (five to ten seconds) and did not seem to involve feeding.
Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)
Seen with their mom here, they sure look almost fully grown.  Perhaps she was trying to tell them something.  Although I'm sure she always looks like this when flying away from the nest, you want to imagine that she is trying to show them how to do it!
Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)
Anyway, I watched the adults make five visits to the nest, all apparently without food.  So I wrapped up the shoot, took the camera and tripod into the house and came back outside to take down the strobe and its tripod, which was on the patio about 8 feet from the nest.  There, under the tripod, was brother (or was it sister?) number four, apparently the adventurous one.  Or perhaps his brothers and sisters kicked him out?
Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) juvenile
He just sat there and looked at me while I collapsed the tripod.  When Joan came out a few minutes later to see him, we started to approach and the little guy took a couple hops away from the house and took to the air, in more or less a climbing flight, down the hill and about fifteen feet up into a tree.  Success!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hoary Vervain

Hoary vervain (Verbena stricita)It sometimes happens, that while walking about the property we find something like this Verbena stricita. A plant that we did not introduce here but yet there it is. I was glad to see this plant as many bees, wasps, butterflies, and skippers are attracted to its flowers. The flowers are interesting in that they bloom from the bottom up and will be blooming for most of the summer. The seeds are eaten by many songbirds, so the seed was probably brought in by the birds. It is growing in our savanna area which has rather poor soil. I hope to collect seeds this fall and scatter them about the area.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Purple Prairie Clover

Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)This plant was previously known as Petalostemum purpureum but now it is Dalea purpurea. Confusing as that might be, the plant itself is rather simple looking until it flowers. Slender and V-shaped in growth, it has a very delicate appearance. The flowers open in a spiral along the cylindrical cone and are a stunning shade of purple. There is also a white variety. Prairie clovers are often hard to establish because the plant is so highly palatable. Here at Habitat Home, they are growing in amongst some prairie dropseed, so perhaps the rabbits and deer do not like to venture in amongst the grasses to eat them. Purple prairie clover is also an important plant because it fixes nitrogen in the soil.